I fought the law and... (well actually, has anyone read what the law says?)
In the past we have talked at some length about the need for an elephant law in Thailand, I have stated to you, bold faced, that for the domestic version of the beast there is no protection except an aging draught animal law designed mainly to stop your elephant being stolen - under this law the ele is an asset like any other piece of machinery.
Sure though I was of the point (& you know me, if I can throw in a caveat I will) there was always a little confusion: if my elephants are completely at my mercy why does the law interfere if I need to move an elephant? Well, it turns out that there is a livestock law aimed at disease prevention which forces me, if I am to move an elephant from one province to another, to get signatures from both the vet at origin and the (local livestock not the one under my employ) vet here that the animal is fit to travel, that the destination exists and the route to be used (even the truck each elephant will travel on, with number plate & driver's I.D.).
Though this law applies equally to buffalo it seems a useful piece of legislation.
Another niggling, nagging doubt has always been there: as many international elephant watchers know, sometime about ten years ago a video was shot of an elephant being trained in what was called a 'traditional' fashion, a particularly brutal method designed for taking a wild elephant whose only experience to date with humans has been to run from them & quickly, efficiently (though efficiency is arguable given a reported 25% mortality rate) turn them into a useful work tool - this is the video still shown today and erroneously claimed to be the norm for elephant training; again we've discussed at length that it is certainly not & never has been the norm for domestic born elephants (who'd lose 25% of their assets?), was never part of the tradition of Thailand's most prolific historical elephant catchers, the Guay from Surin & may even have been stamped out already (thanks largely to the video takers).
But we're not here to rehash old arguments - the Government response to the video was swift to point out that this form of training was already illegal in 2001 and, somewhat haughtily (though technically correctly), pointed out that instead of video'ing it was the video'ers duty to stop the process making them legally culpable.
The doubt though was always, if, as I told you, there was no legislation in Thailand to prevent animal cruelty, under which law would it be illegal to torture an elephant into submission?
Weeeelllllll, not being very bright myself, one trick I learn in helping our little Foundation punch above it's weight is to surround ourselves with young & clever bright young things, people with whom I can share my niggling doubts and an internet connection and leave to uncover the truth. Step forward Australian vet Jennifer Urwin who found the following for us:
...the truth is, in her penal code (at least in 2003, the most up-to-date translation I could find), Thailand has a couple of clauses directly related to animal cruelty:
Under the Petty Offences book, Section 381 reads:
'Whoever, cruelly ill-treats or kills an animal with unnecessary sufferings, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding one month or fined not exceeding one thousand Baht, or both.'
While Section 382 reads:
'Whoever, overworking the animal unreasonably or using it to do unsuitable work on account of it to be ill, old or young, shall be imprisoned not out of one month [s.i.c.] or fined not out of one thousand [s.i.(a.)c.] Baht, or both'
...& Section 377 reads:
'Whoever, having in his care a ferocious or vicious animal, allows it to wander about alone in a manner likely to cause injury to a person or things, shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding one month or fined not exceeding one thousand Baht, or both.'
Now, I know what you're thinking, you're about to ask me how I could be writing in defence of the Thai legal system when they offer such paltry fines and call animal cruelty a petty offence? Well, these things are relative, consider the fine in Section 376, just above the one where they'll lock me up for letting ferocious Lynchee loose on the world: for someone who 'unnecessarily fires a gun in town or village' or anywhere where there is a 'conglomerate of people' - the maximum fine is 500 baht and the prison sentence is ten days and it is still a Petty Offence.
Thinking about it from the perspective of a wealthy businessman the penalties do seem small, though everyone has to be inconvenienced by a month in jail I'd have thought, but from the perspective of a mahout, most of whom aren't working here & well paid, 1,000 baht has to hurt (let's say the average wage in Thailand is between 4 - 5,000 baht - so a week's wages). Though it is true that, before Chang Yim helped to get them off the Bangkok streets the numbers quoted as earned by street mahouts are much higher - something close to an order of magnitude so. Even then, a month in jail and the hiring of another mahout to look after your elephant - getting caught being cruel would still be costly, more so, being fined 1,000 baht on a nightly basis for a month may not bankrupt you but it has to make your work distinctly less profitable.
So, if the law, as it stands could be a deterrent, why isn't it?
I asked the Thai Animal Guardians Association who have recently drafted a stricter & specific animal cruelty law, currently waiting to go before parliament (&, about to expire if not seen soon) & they replied to the effect that the current fines were not a deterrent specifically to street walking babies as more money could be made and that the courts were usually unwilling to imprison poor folks whose only source of income came through work (even if that work were, on the books, illegal).
So, while I think a specific animal cruelty law is necessary (I think a specific elephant law is necessary - the, slghtly knee jerk, specific street elephant begging in Bangkok laws seem to have worked (though my intelligence claims they're creeping back in)) and would urge you to help AGA in their endeavours to have theirs written into law I also think that we ought to look into reasons why the current statute isn't working - street begging aside, acts of outright cruelty to elephants are few and far enough between that the clauses outlined above could be a useful tool to force abusive mahouts/businessmen to mend their ways without rewarding them for their actions by buying their elephant.
Might we not make a start by getting definitions of "too young", "too old", "over work" set into precedent and then helping the police to enforce the existing law. Theoretically, once we have definitions we can educate our local bobbys, the boys in brown, as to what these definitions are and help them take action.
Next time, before we condemn or threaten to boycott the country and all operators for lack of laws, wouldn't it be interesting to think about being able to call the police?